Many people will never have heard of cryo-electron microscopy before the announcement that Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson had won the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work developing this technology. So what is it, and why is it worthy of this honor?
Cryo-electron microscopy – or cryo-EM – is an imaging technology that allows scientists to obtain pictures of the biological “machines” that work inside our cells. Most amazingly, it can reconstruct individual snapshots into movie-like scenes that show how protein components of these biological machines move and interact with each other.
It’s like the difference between having a list of all of the individual parts of an engine versus being able to see the engine fully assembled and running. The parts list can tell you a lot, but there’s no replacement for seeing what you’re studying in action.